Three years ago, the mark against Discovery was that it “wasn’t really Star Trek.” Granted, every new series since The Next Generation was met with a similar fan response at first, but Discovery did start a bit farther afield than any of its predecessors. While watching this week’s new episode, “Anomaly,” it struck me that Discovery has never felt more like Star Trek, and yet doesn’t seem to have lost any of its own identity. While “Anomaly” isn’t exactly an exceptional episode (in fact, it’s a pretty straightforward one), it demonstrates how reliably entertaining the show has become, even in comparison to some of its more lauded older cousins.
Feelings, The Final Frontier
Apart from flashy effects and seasonal arcs, the element that most distinguishes Discovery from other Treks is high emotion, and that’s on full display this week in “Anomaly.” It’s been only a few days since the planet Kwejian was destroyed by a mysterious gravitational force, and Cleveland Booker — possibly the only survivor of his species — is still in shock. Book tortures himself by replaying his ship’s records of the event over and over, convincing himself that he should have understood the danger and retrieved his brother and nephew from the surface. Michael Burnham is well-acquainted with loss, but even she has never coped with a tragedy of this magnitude. She can offer support and is doing her best, but there’s only so much she can do if Book won’t open up or even let himself cry. For the moment, patience seems to be her only useful tool.
Luckily, someone has come onboard to lend her support in this difficult time, her closest friend Captain Saru. Saru has been on sabbatical from Starfleet in order to serve on his home planet’s ruling council and to help the troubled orphan Su’Kal acclimate to life among other people, but has decided to return to active duty to help with the ongoing anomaly crisis. Saru has been offered a new command, but chooses to abdicate in order to serve as Burnham’s first officer. This is a warm and welcome offer, and not without precedent — both Spock and Montgomery Scott served under James T. Kirk in the original film series while also holding the rank of Captain themselves. Like the best Star Trek crews, the Discovery family does not struggle between commitment to duty and commitment to each other, but sees supporting each other as part of their duty.
“Anomaly” also follows up on the demise of Commander Nallis, a one-off guest star who spent most of last week waving increasingly larger death flags. (If you’re in a life-threatening situation, do not tell people about your plans for “after all this is over.” They should teach this at the Academy.) Surviving the escape pod crash that claimed Nallis’ life has given Ensign Adira and Lieutenant Tilly each a bit of a shock, the reverberations of which are explored this week. Adira is contemplating the fragility of life, particularly since their non-corporeal boyfriend Gray (Ian Alexander) will soon undergo a risky procedure to move his consciousness into a synthetic body of his own. (There’s a cute nod here to the technique used to resurrect a certain famous Admiral on Star Trek: Picard.) Tilly’s having a harder time pinning down what’s wrong with her, and seeks guidance from Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) who is now the ship’s therapist as well as a surgeon. There’s some exploration of Tilly as an authority figure here as she tries to manage young Adira, who is eager to please but also quick to offense. These amount to pretty small subplots in the episode, but have potential to pay off further in the weeks ahead.
Closed Book Exam
With everyone’s emotional bearings established, Discovery jumps to the perimeter of the gravitational anomaly. Lt. Commander Stamets still can’t make head or tail of what exactly it is, but it measures a whopping five light years across and it’s moving towards another populated area of space. Burnham and company are here to take detailed scans and try to understand its nature and trajectory, but Discovery herself is too large to safely enter its perimeter and shuttlecraft and drones are too fragile. When Book offers to fly his own, still-nameless vessel into the soup, Burnham tries to ground him from the mission, but Book is tightly in the grips of his survivor’s guilt and pulls lack-of-rank. He’s not in Starfleet, he’s not under Burnham’s command, and she can’t stop him from going. Neither Sonequa Martin-Green nor David Ajala overplay their hands in this scene, which feels raw and emotional but not hyperbolic. Director Olutunde Osunsamni also opts for a handheld camera here, which might be the obvious choice but is also an effective one, particularly given its rarity on Star Trek.
The mission itself sees Book’s ship navigating the shaky gravitational seas while Stamets, holographically transmitted into the ship from a safe distance, performs as many sensor scans as he can. (The option of sending Book in as a hologram as well, rather than risking his life, is never considered on screen.) Stamets is uncomfortable being paired up with Book, and it’s implied at first that it’s because he doesn’t know him very well and is afraid of touching one of the grieving Kwejian’s many raw nerves. The truth, as it turns out, is deeper — Stamets recognizes the feeling of pain and helplessness in Book’s eyes as the one that he himself wore when he was floating alone in an escape pod in the Season Three finale, unable to save Hugh and Adira from the dilithium planet. Stamets has also been too proud to convey his gratitude for Book having rescued his family, and the subject feels too delicate now that Book has lost his own. Neither of these men is particularly good at being vulnerable, at least not right now, and it makes the mission all the more difficult.
Meanwhile, Discovery is rocked by increased gravitational activity from the anomaly, repeatedly knocking out the ship’s own artificial gravity and separating the bridge crew from their controls. Sparks fly and consoles explode, so much so that it actually overshoots being tense to become a little bit funny. The crew doesn’t just become weightless, they’re lifted simultaneously into the vertical center of the room as if on strings, betraying the fact that they are, indeed, on strings. There also appear to be vents on the bridge that have no other purpose than to spit bursts of fire. Being quintessentially Star Trek isn’t always a good thing, and this sequence takes the traditional bridge distress to a distracting extreme.
If You Can Talk the Talk, You Can Tech the Tech
Discovery needs to fall back in order to prevent further damage, which also requires that Book’s ship disconnects from the programmable matter tether that’s kept it from getting lost inside the anomaly. Book is coming apart, hallucinating the falling birds that he saw over Kwejian and seeing his dead nephew running around his ship. Stamets isn’t able to reel him back in, and the ship is in dire jeopardy. At Saru’s gentle suggestion, Michael makes a personal appeal to Book, speaking to him not as the Captain of Discovery but as his partner. Michael has been trying to give Book space he’s asked for, but that’s also meant letting him stew in his self-hatred. Over comms, Michael says what’s been on her mind this whole time — what happened to Kwejian is not Book’s fault and there’s nothing he could have done. It’s not what he wants to hear, but it is what he needs to hear and has the added benefit of being the truth. This gets Book to finally start talking about his feelings rather than burying himself under them, and soon he’s back at the controls completing the mission.
The idea that a quick pep talk like this would wake Book out of a nearly catatonic state of grief sounds cheap and easy on paper, but again, the performances of Martin-Green and Ajala sell it. The storytellers are clearly aware of the chemistry that they’re working with and do not overcomplicate their communications. If you can sell an audience that the love and trust between two characters is real, it’ll work like a sharp knife. Almost no pressure is necessary.
And, of course, there’s nothing more Star Trek than solving a problem by talking about it. While Burnham and Book have their heart to heart, the rest of the bridge crew comes up with an easily digestible science solution to safely guide Book’s ship home. Rather than being purely technical, this will also rely on the trust built between Burnham and her partner. Book is flying blind, and needs Burnham to help him nail the route and timing of his escape perfectly. This group effort brings Book home safely, and once he’s back aboard, he finally breaks down and cries in Michael’s arms, allowing the healing process to begin.
A Whale of a Tale?
Communication is nearly always the silver bullet in Star Trek, which is partly why an antagonist like this gravitational anomaly is so interesting. You can’t negotiate a peace treaty with a hurricane, and this automatically puts Starfleet and the Federation on its back foot. In this episode’s final reveal, Tilly discovers that the anomaly actually changed course to move towards Discovery during the scanning mission. Lt. Tilly stresses that this means that its path is unpredictable, but there’s also a more intriguing implication: What if the anomaly is alive?
In the 1991 Next Generation episode “Silicon Avatar,” the USS Enterprise-D encounters the Crystalline Entity, a spaceborne life form that feeds en masse on organic life. A scientist whose son was eaten (along with his entire colony) by the Entity seeks to destroy it, but Captain Jean-Luc Picard stresses that, while it may be a predator, it is alive and has as much a right to live as they do. He equates the Crystalline Entity to a sperm whale, which consumes millions of fish over its lifetime, not because it’s evil but because it’s hungry. Picard’s first priority is to try and communicate with the Crystalline Entity, and barring that, find it a less objectionable food supply. Killing the creature is his last resort. (The grieving scientist ends up destroying the Entity anyway).
If Discovery’s gravitational anomaly somehow possesses a consciousness, even a simple defensive instinct, combatting it could pose a challenge to Federation ethics. Even Book would have to feel conflicted about destroying the anomaly if it were a life form, as he’s spent his adult life working to preserve endangered species. Obviously, if push comes to shove, Starfleet will destroy a mortal threat to its citizens (assuming they can), but this would be a Pyrrhic victory of the sort that Captain Burnham refuses to accept, tying us back into her established conflict for the season. This is one of a dozen directions this story could be headed, and so long as Discovery can keep up this level of energy, I’m content to be caught in its gravity.